[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.9] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the Internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over 100 countries.
In this episode we explore luck. Does luck exist? Is there a science behind luck? What does the research reveal about lucky people and unlucky people? Is it possible to manufacture your own luck? We speak with research psychologist, Dr. Richard Wiseman, and learn the truth about luck and how you just might be able to create a little bit more in your own life.
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In our previous episode, we discussed the habits of high achievers, the motivation myth, the deep into the habits, routines and strategies you can use to achieve more in less time, talk about the balance between hustle and hard work versus recovery and much more with our guest, Jeff Haden.
If you want to get the habit and strategies the top performers use to achieve results in the real-world, listen to that interview.
Now, without further ado, here's Dr. Richard Wiseman. I did want to give you a heads up. He is in England, so we had a little bit of a choppy connection. Nothing too bad, but I just wanted to let you know before the interview starts.
Here we go.
[0:02:28.7] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Dr. Richard Wiseman. Richard has been described by the Scientific American as the most interesting and innovative experimental psychologist in the world today. His books have sold over 3 million copies. He began his career working as a magician and now holds Britain's only professorship the in public understanding of psychology. His work is been featured across the globe and he’s delivered keynotes to the Royal Society, the Swiss Economic Forum, Google and more.
Richard, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:00.6] RW: Pleasure to be here. Thank you very much.
[0:03:02.6] MB: We’re very excited to have you on today. I love to start out. I definitely want to dig into a number of things you've written about and spoken about. To start out though, your background and the journey of how you kind of became fascinated with all these different subjects is fascinating. So I love to begin with that, hear a little bit about how you began and sort of where that journey took you.
[0:03:23.5] RW: I guess I began with my passion in life, which was magic and performing magic. So when I was surrounded about 8 years old, I sold my first magic trick, really got into it and went to the public library and started reading a lot about magic. I was professional before in my early teens, and then started to look more at the psychology of magic, because if you're going to be a good magician, you need to understand how your audience thinks and feels. It’s a pretty order, because you're standing in front of a group of strangers and you need to do psychology experiments about magic tricks myself night after night and fool every single person in the room.
You can't have a good night where you just fool 80% of people. You do have to understand how people's minds work, where their attention is, how they’re perceiving what’s in front of them, how they’re remembering the performance afterwards, particularly when they discuss it with their friends. I just became interested in that very practical, applied aspect of psychology and essentially became so interested in it that I studied as an experimental psychologist first at University College London, which perhaps not surprisingly is in London.
At the end of that, I was looking for an interesting Ph.D. and by chance I saw a poster up on the wall. These were the days before email. So we used to communicate with posters. There was a poster up on the wall saying that there was a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and he was interested in psychology of deception and was looking for a candidate to explore that topic with him.
I applied to the University of Edinburgh, was accepted on that course and spent four years looking at deception, and then at the end of that, I came back down to the south of the U.K., at the University of Hertfordshire and started to work on social psychology and on the psychology of self-development, and that's where I’ve been ever since. I've only really have one proper job, which has been at the university and that's been for 20 something years now. But that is basically the kind of line through in terms of my career.
[0:05:25.4] MB: So the psychology of deception sounds fascinating. Tell me a little bit of what were kind of some of the fundamental conclusions or ideas that you uncovered when you were working on that?
[0:05:36.0] RW: Partly, again, was looking at the psychology of magic. Magicians need to convince you of a certain and that narrative has something impossible in it, that somebody levitates or appears or disappears or whatever it is. But behind that narrative, you have the real narrative, the method some magicians like to call it the trap doors or the mirrors, and we are looking at ways in which magicians encourage you to think one sets of things and not all ask certain questions.
If you take a very — I don’t know, a very kind of simple trick where you ask people to think for a number between 1 and 10 and the magician might predict that people are going to say number 7, that’s to do with the fact if that trick fools you. It’s to do with the fact that you don’t realize that seven is the most frequently chosen number and so. They hide that a little bit away from you. That was one part of it.
The other part was looking at the psychology of lying, and particularly weather people, when they lie, give off more information, give off more tales if you like using their body language or using the words they say. We carried out quite a well-known experiment on the British media where we had a very well-known political commentator go on to a television program, and I interviewed him twice, once about his favorite film and he told me he loved Gone With the Wind, and then asked him a second time about his favorite film, and he told me he'd love Some Like it Hot, because one of them was a complete lie. Yes, he hated one of those two films.
We have the public vote on which they thought was the lie, and in line with all of the experimental work into lying, they were about 50-50. No better than charms. Most people think they could lie detectors, but they really not. When we took just the soundtrack of those two interviews and put them on the radio or just to publish the transcripts in the national newspaper, people's lie detecting abilities went up into the 60%, 70%, and the reason for that is that when we lie, it’s very easy to control our body language. Whether we gesture or smile [inaudible 0:07:39.9]. It’s much harder to control the words we say and how we say them. If you shift people's attention on to those attributes, they become much better lie detectors, and that was all parts of that deception work as well.
[0:07:52.9] MB: That's fascinating. So an average person will be essentially no better than 50-50 chance of detecting a liar if they're looking at a video of someone, but if you take them to the transcript, you said it was up to 60 %to 70%?
[0:08:06.2] RW: Absolutely. It’s one, the simplest of fixes. If you're thinking someone is going to lie to you, actually just guessing them on the phone is much better than interviewing them or speaking to them face-to-face. In fact, actually I returned that. I know we’ll probably talk about 59 Seconds later on, but I returned that topic in 59 Seconds, which is my book about these sorts of things. The other aspect of lie detection is that people don't want to commit the lie to paper, to something that whether you can look back and go, “hold on a second. You told me that at that point.” They rather like the idea of it being a spoken lie, because then can say, “You’ve misremembered what I said.”
In 59 Seconds, I was talking about some of the research, which if you want to find out whether someone’s lying to you, the magic words to use are, “Can you email that to me?” If they are lying, that email will never arrive, or when it does arrive, it's somewhat different than what they just told you face-to-face. I became just interested in these simple winds, these things, which evidence-base, that can have a very big impact.
[0:09:13.5] MB: That’s fascinating. I love that symbols sort of practical strategy of just asking some to email you and then sort of gauging whether that's different from what they communicated to you.
I’d love to transition, because there're so many things I want to talk about in this interview. Your work on luck is one of the most fascinating things that I think you've done. I’d love to kind of start out with many people think of luck, they think that it's kind of randomness of chance or sort of arbitrary. From your perspective and from the work in the research that you’ve done, what is it mean to be lucky and does luck exist?
[0:09:48.3] RW: That work dates back a long way. It dates back to the 1990s, actually, and at that time — And this was before, really, the kind of evidence-based self-help movement was around. It was a little bit before even what’s called positive psychology was around. I was talking to people about key moments in their lives how they ended up in certain relationships and certain careers and they would talk about these lucky and unlucky moments. They would talk about themselves being a lucky or unlucky person.
At that point in time, really, people, psychologists, had dismissed the concept of luck. They had said, “Look. It’s just random. It's like winning or losing a lottery. There’s no science to be had here,” or these people are kidding themselves. They’re not really lucky.
I embarked on this research project, which was gathering together about a thousand people who consider themselves exceptionally lucky and unlucky, and then presenting them with various tasks and seeing how they responded. What we saw even very early on in that research within probably the first six months, it was a four-year project, but within the first six months, we saw very big difference emerging between the lucky and the unlucky people. So we came to the conclusion towards the end of that project that for the most part, it’s not true of every aspect of your life, but for the most part, people are creating their own luck by the way they were thinking and the way they're behaving.
They didn't realize that it didn't look like that to them, that it will be like a magic trick. To them it looked a magical thing that was just happening that they were either destined to do well in life or fated to do badly, but we could see unconsciously that we’re using certain tricks to accomplish that, and that then formed the basis of my very first book, which was the luck factor, which again was the first kind of evidence-based take on self-help where we were saying to people. “Look. Don't just listen to her self-help guru. Ask for the evidence. We've done the experiments. We can tell you what we found, and here are some exercises that hopefully will make you luckier in life.”
[0:11:52.0] MB: I want to dig in to how to create or manufacture your own luck, but before we do, I'm really curious if you could share maybe an example or two or a story from some of the research you did around luck, because I know there's some really kind of interesting and compelling examples.
[0:12:07.9] RW: We had a lot of them, and there's enormous consistency. I think the lucky people, always in the right place at the right time, lots of opportunities, they always fall on their feet and so on. In terms of the unluckiest people, we had one woman who had five car accidents in one 50-mile journey, which she put down to her jinxed green car, and then one day she came to the University and watched her trying to park the car, and we realized there were a few other factors in there. She’s also unlucky in love, so she signed up with a dating agency and first date came off his motorbike and broke his leg. The replacement day, walked into a glass door and broke his nose and eventually when she found someone to marry, the church they're going to get married in was burned down one day before the wedding, and that was how her whole life had gone. That was very typical of the unlucky people. Everything I touch was an absolute disaster.
Then on the flip side, you have these lucky people who wanted to start with a new kind of business venture and went to a party and met somebody there by chance and that person was exactly the person they needed in order to catapult themselves forward, and they became millionaires and so on. So very big differences between the two groups.
[0:13:24.4] MB: And how can somebody, for example, the woman who was consistently unlucky, how could she sort of transition or become someone who is lucky, and what were some of the differences between her and a lucky person?
[0:13:37.2] RW: Well, if we start with the differences, one was very interesting, almost perceptual different actually in terms of how they were seeing the world, and this was the form, the basis for an experiment we did. This then became quite well-known in terms of having people look at the newspaper.
We asked people to come into the lab to flick through a newspaper and just count the number of photographs in the newspaper. It's a fairly dull thing to do. What we didn't tell them is there were two large opportunities placed in the newspaper. One was a half-page advert with massive type that said, “Stop counting. There are 42 photographs in this newspaper,” and the other was another half page advert that said, “Say, you’ve seen, tell the experiment you’ve seen, and win,” whatever it was, 100 pounds or something.
What was fascinating was the lucky people tended to spot those opportunities, and so they would stop and go, “My goodness! That's great. I don’t need to count all the photographs, or could I have my prize now?” The unlucky people literally turned the page and didn't see them, and that's to do with this notion of attentional spotlight, that when we look at the world, we’re not seeing everything that's in front of us. We’re seeing a small part of it, where we place that active attention. When you become worried and anxious and concerned, as the unlucky people were, that becomes very small. You become very focused, and in doing so, you don't see something if you don't expect to see it.
The lucky people were far more relaxed and far more cheerful, had a large attentional spotlight, and so more likely to see opportunities they don’t expect and also act on them. That was the type of study we’re doing in order to try and tease really what was happening, why one group would say, “My goodness! I get all these opportunities,” and another group would say, “I never get a break.”
[0:15:35.8] MB: I love the newspaper experiment. That’s one of my favorite examples, and I’m so glad you shared it, and it just demonstrates really clearly that it's not necessarily sort of fate and random chance that's causing people to be lucky or unlucky. Obviously, there is a factor of that, but in many ways you can kind of create your own luck.
[0:15:56.0] RW: Absolutely. That was the premises of the research. Then what we did was to go on and test that. So hold on a second. If we take a group of people who are not particularly lucky or unlucky and we get them to think and behave like a lucky person, does that increase their luck? That data forms the basis, the luck factor book, and we found very simple exercises. The simplest one, but one of the most popular and which is now a well-known exercise, but at the time it wasn't, which is just getting people to keep a lucky diary and at the end of each day writing down the most positive thing, positive thought that they’ve had during that day, or one negative event that used to happen is no longer happening, or some sense of gratitude they have, their friends, or family or health or job or whatever. That starts to reorient people quite quickly.
So one of the issues with focusing is that if you are an unlucky personal or think you are, you literally do not see the good things in your life until you start to carry out that exercise. It’s a very, very simple intervention found, well it’s the simplest of interventions that had the most powerful effects, but you could see dramatically over the course of a month or two people becoming more positive, becoming luckier because of those interventions.
[0:17:12.7] MB: I’d love to dig in to a few of the other kind of tactics and strategies that you talked about that people can use to create their own luck.
[0:17:20.2] RW: There are lots of them. We looked at intuition. Lucky people tended to be a little bit more intuitive than unlucky people. They tended to be risk-takers without being reckless. They also tended when bad things happen to be very resilient. So whereas the unlucky people would always generate what are called positive counterfactual, that is when a bad event happened, they always imagined how it could've been much, much better.
If they — I don’t know, fallen on the stairs, broke their leg. They said, “Well, I could have fallen down the stairs and not broken my leg, and therefore this is a terrible, terrible outcome.” What lucky people do naturally is imagine they could've been [inaudible 0:17:59.4], and so they’d go, “Well, I could've fallen down the stairs and broke both of my legs,” for example. That automatic generating of an negative counterfactuals really helps people with resilience as does finding the silver lining, that no matter how bad the event, there will be something good that has come from it. Again, lucky people very naturally do that. Unlucky people, it's very, very hard for them until the exercise is pointed out to them to find that the positive in what seems like a negative event.
All these things are very simple, but I think we're the first people to really try and put numbers to the them, to kind of go, “Okay. Let's test this. Let’s find out what works and what doesn't work.”
[0:18:43.3] MB: I just wanted to confirm again for people listening that your research came to the fundamental conclusion that people who are and think of themselves as unlucky can learn these basic behaviors and literally sort of manufacture or create their own luck and become a luckier person just by implementing a few of these behaviors.
[0:19:04.0] RW: That’s right. It doesn't feel like that at the time. It feels like, as I say, something magical or supernatural is happening, but it is deeply psychological. It's not true of everything. I mean, there are some events in your life that really are chance and nothing to do with you, but for the most part you’re creating your own good and bad luck by the way you're thinking and feeling. More importantly, change how you think and feel and you can increase the luck you experience, and that was the very radical notion which underlie the luck factor book.
When that came out, it sold right across the world and became this kind of big bestseller, which was a lovely thing to see, that we could take our research and give it not only a national, but an international platform for people.
[0:19:43.6] MB: And what would you say to somebody who’s listening and sort of things to themselves, “Yeah, that sounds great, but that’s not work for me, or it's not going to happen when I do it, or I can't train my mind to see the positive in things.”
[0:19:58.7] RW: I guess — We heard that a lot from the unlucky people, and what we found was it was the simplest of interventions that have the big effects. The problem with some of these more [inaudible 0:20:09.4] interventions is that people get confused or they don’t have the willpower to keep going or they’re not quite certain what they should do. Everything is very simple. We know it works with the vast majority of people. I have to say, [inaudible 0:20:23.8]. There’s around about 20% of people that rather enjoy being unlucky, and what I mean by that is their self-identity is bound up with that. They’re the person that goes to parties and knocks over glasses and, “Oh my goodness! That's clumsy me. Everything I do, absolutely terrible,” and at some level they’re enjoying that and at some level are deeply afraid to move away from that identity, and those folks are very hard to reach, actually. But for the vast majority of people, actually these things do work, but you do need to do it. If you give up before you stopped, clearly it's not going to have much of an impact. You need to do these things. The person says, “Well, they’ll work or won’t work,” I would say come back after a month of doing them and then tell me that. If you tell it to me right now, I'm going be a bit skeptical, because you’re giving up before you started.
[0:21:16.8] MB: So you mentioned the luck diary. We talked a little bit about sort of find the silver linings. What are some of the other really simple strategies that people can implement?
[0:21:26.6] RW: Part of it was about flexibility, that even when the unlucky people saw an opportunity, they were very scared to move forward, because they were in a rut and they rather like routine even though it wasn’t a successful routine. Getting people to be more flexible, getting people to try things they haven't tried before, going to work or college with a different route, listening to whatever it is, radio that you don't normally listen to, trying different types of food, altering your conversational style. If you’re [inaudible 0:21:57.3] spending a bit more time, vice versa if your introverts, going two hours without saying the word I. All of these things give you a sense of flexibility, and that means that when an opportunity comes along, you're far more likely to make the most of that opportunity rather than go, “No. I'm not that sort of person. I am not a sort of person who’s flexible and changes.”
[0:22:19.2] MB: Even these simple sort of daily interventions, things like taking a different route to work, changing the conversational sort of strategies or styles that you’re using, maybe going for a walk randomly or to a different place that you don’t typically do. All of these create sort of the behavior or the sort of competency of flexibility, which then enables you to kind of capture “luck” when it sort of falls into your lap.
[0:22:45.1] RW: That's pretty much it. It puts you into the mindsets in that instance of somebody who’s flexible, who changes. The one thing we know about life is it’s not predictable. The strategies that worked last week may not work so well next week. So you need to be able to change and alter the sort of person you are., and lucky people were like that. They were very open to an uncertain future they thought they’d be able to cope, but they were very open to an uncertain future, where the unlucky people really like the idea of a plan. Even if that plan didn't work out, they would still keep on repeating it, because at least it have some certainty to.
Also, lucky people tended to be team players. They tended to be trying to negotiate win-wins all the time and to build up a network of contacts around them. They were be very, very well-connected. The unlucky people tended to be socially isolated. If they had an idea they hadn't really going to want to bounce it off of. They haven’t got that experience or talking to somebody and then going, “Oh! You should be my friend.” They’re really interested in that, and that plays an absolute key role in success. That was about the social side of it rather than the cognitive side.
[0:23:55.2] MB: That's really interesting, and so that’s kind of another one of these learned behaviors, is that if you become more social, you can also create luck essentially through sort of the network effect of meeting and engaging with more people.
[0:24:09.9] RW: Oh, absolutely. I can remember one lucky person who came into the lab and they were trying to sell their car. So we’re doing the experiment, on the way out, they spoke to one of the secretaries in the department and they were chatting and then the secretary, “You’re not interested in buying a new car, because I’ve got a car I’m trying to —” and the secretory, “Oh! I am actually. How weird you mentioned that. I am.” The two of them got chatting and he ended up selling his car to her. Now that's a very, very good example of him creating his own good luck. He will look back on that and go, “My goodness! What are the chances? I just happened to bump in to somebody.”
The fact is, he was bumping into people all of the time. He was buying a [inaudible 0:24:49.0] times a day in that sense and occasionally have hit the jackpot. The unlucky people simply weren’t buying the tickets, that they weren't spending any time with other people or exploring those relationships in an open way, and so they weren't getting those opportunities.
[0:25:02.7] MB: Yeah, it’s the old kind of analogy that you miss 100% of the shots you don't take, right? So lucky people, it sounds like — And according to the research, are essentially sort of constantly dabbling and exploring all these potential opportunities and sort of things that may emerge, and then when it does, they’re like, “Oh! Look at that, that opportunity kin of emerged.”
[0:25:24.4] RW: That’s right. Also, particularly with social networks, if you hit a node, if you hit somebody who's very well-connected, then you’re massively increasing your chances. You’re not just talking to that person or that party, your essentially talking to all the people they know. So if you're talking to somebody who’s well-connected, it might be that that opportunities is not for them, but they'll say, “Oh! Let me introduce you to so and so.” With networking, the way it works in terms of how we connected to others, it's very easy to get access to a very large number of people, and that’s what the lucky people were so skilled at doing.
[0:26:02.1] MB: I think digging down the rabbit hole of how to build relationships and social networking is probably beyond the full scope of our conversation, but for visitors who are curious, we do have another interview with Keith Ferrazzi that goes super deep into a lot of strategies you can use to implement many of those different things.
I'm curious, I’d love to kind of transition a little bit. I mean, the luck factor and all the work you did there is really fascinating, but I want to talk about some of the other work you’ve done, because I also think it's really aligned with what the show focuses on and what we often talk about on here. In 59 Seconds, which is one of your other books, you talk at length about sort of debunking some of the myths and confusion points in self-help. I'm curious, what kind of lead you to want to write that book?
[0:26:46.7] RW: 59, I mean, all the books have slightly old origins. 59, was because I went out for lunch, I think it was, with a friend of mine who’s quite the CEO in quite a big organization, and she started to talk about happiness and she said, “Oh, you know a bit about happiness. How does it work in terms of psychology?”
I started to answer and she said, “I’m quite a busy person. Can you really tell me and sort of cut it down a bit?” I said, “How long have you got?” She said, “Around about a minute,” and I thought that's kind of an intuition. [inaudible 0:27:19.2] ideas in psychology, that can be conveyed [inaudible 0:27:22.5] .Originally, the book was called 60 Seconds, and we round, and it was about evidence-based — In less than a minute, and at one meeting I said precisely that, I said less than a minute and someone said, “It’s not 60 seconds. It's 59 seconds,” and that's a much better title for all sorts of reasons.
So part of that book is debunking the myths of self-help, things which we all like to believe, which simply aren’t true and therefore are hurting us, and then the other parties, and here is what you can actually do to be more successful in these various domains, such as happiness and relationships and parenting and so on. That was the origins of that book, and it then became a very successful YouTube channel and has been all around the world again. So it is probably the book I’m best known for, and actually the quickest one to write. I think that was probably written about two months. So it was [inaudible 0:28:15.6] stuff that I've been storing up in my head.
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Now back to the show.
[0:29:36.7] MB: What were some of the bit myths that you uncovered that kind of permeates self-help?
[0:29:42.0] RW: I think the biggest one was this notion of visualization, that there are so many self-help books that tell people to visualize endpoint. That is to visualize yourself in five years in the perfect relationship, perfect career, whatever it is. When you look at the psychology to an experiment, there is a single experiment that doesn't say that that is a terrible, terrible idea. It makes you feel good, which is why people like doing it. The problem is in terms of success and in terms of bringing that [inaudible 0:30:17.6] into reality, it sets your expectations very high and encourages you not to do anything else. All you need to do is dream.
So when that future doesn't emerge, then you become very discouraged. You think like, “I gave it my best shot, and I’m quite fatalistic,” and so very unlikely to move on throughout the strategies. There’s probably about 10, 15 papers now showing across pretty much every domain, that aspect, that application of visualization is a terrible idea.
There’s an equally large literature that says that visualization is a powerful tool, but you visualize process, not endpoint. If you want to do well in an exam, you visualize yourself doing the sorts of things. good students do; asking questions in class, revising, going a little bit further than the other students, or whatever. You don't visualize yourself sitting down and having a wonderful exam or opening an envelope and taking out an A-grate certificate. I think that was one of the key things. I mean, that notion, that visualization of endpoint is now all over the place, but I think we’re the first to sort of bring it into kind of public consciousness.
[0:31:25.9] MB: That is a great distinction, because I think it gets lost on a lot of people when they talk about visualization. The methodology itself can be effective, but it needs to be applied to a process as opposed to an endpoint.
[0:31:38.1] RW: That’s correct, then there’s a large literature suggesting exactly that. Even [inaudible 0:31:42.9] it wasn't known, and so all these athletes were being encouraged to visualize exactly the wrong thing. So it's a complete waste of time. It was nice to sort of dig up some of these.
The other one was brainstorming. This notion of all getting together in the room and coming up with ideas, again, reduces creativity by around about 20%. As we speak, there’ll be organizations around the world where everyone is sitting around in a room and trying to solve a problem in a creative way brainstorming terrible and apply it in that particular way.
What is far more effective is everyone brainstorms on their own, and they arrive at that meeting of ideas and you go around the table and everyone discusses their three ideas. Then you see big increases in both the number of ideas, obviously, and the originality. It’s a very simple tweak, but it’s very important one. We’ve been getting brainstorming wrong for many, many years.
[0:32:42.0] MB: That makes a lot of sense. What was the sort of science or the reasoning behind why brainstorming in a group is so ineffective?
[0:32:49.9] RW: There’s two bits of science behind it. One is social loafing, which is anyone in the group, and some people would just simply not try very hard, because [inaudible 0:33:00.1]. One, they’re thinking, “Well, if I come up with a key idea, the whole group gets the kind of glory for that, which I don’t like the sound of.” The other is, “I can just lean back and let everyone else do the work,” and both of those ideas means that people don't tend to engage very much.
The other is that within any group, you’ll get some people that dominate, and who knew the most dominating people are not the most creative, and they end up telling you all their ideas and the quieter people don't get a word in. So simply by having this very simple intervention would change of everyone arriving with three ideas get rid of all of those problems very, very effectively.
[0:33:40.7] MB: What were some of the other kind myths that permeate self-help that you uncovered in 59 Seconds?
[0:33:47.8] RW: There’s quite a few of them in there. I mean, right I think when I was writing it, the notion of the Harvard motivational stuff, which is the study where the Harvard researchers — I mean, [inaudible 0:33:59.1]. It’s credited various universities, but normally Harvard. Harvard researchers go in, ask kids what they want to be when they grow up and only 3% know, and that 3% for 20 something years accounts for 90% of the income of the cohort. Used all over the place to encourage people to get their kids to focus very young, and when you look at the evidence for it, there’s simply isn’t any evidence. That's a complete work of fiction. That experiment has never been conducted, and people need to know that. there is no hard evidence that getting children to focus very young will have any positive impact on their the long-term success or career.
Again, parents didn't know, and I regularly taught organizations, and you get people in the audience saying, “I just had no idea that's entirely fictitious.” There's quite a lot of kind of myth busting in that book.
[0:34:52.1] MB: I’m curious, because one of the things that we focus on a lot on the Science of Success is what we call evidence-based growth, which is basically thinking about the world from the perspective of evidence first and trying to understand what does the science say, what does evidence say and what is that mean for us as individuals trying to achieve our goals and sort of create a better world? Why do you think that it's so hard within self-help to bring that evidence to the forefront? Often, it seems like there's so much noise that it's really challenging to sort of distinguish what the signal is.
[0:35:34.1] RW: I think it’s [inaudible 0:35:34.7] two reasons. One is that we’re equipped with common sense. One of the problem being is often wrong, but intuitively, it feels like if you get kids to focus young, that would be a good thing. Intuitively, it feels that sitting around a room and kicking around some ideas is a good thing. Intuitions are often wrong.
That’s one reasons why it’s tricky. The other is that the psychological literature is really spread out. I mean, it is immense now, and that you need a fair bit of expertise to even find out where the relevant papers are, and even more expertise be able to read them and actually know what they're trying to say in terms of the data.
I think it is very, very tough for people to actually find the evidence, and that was really the thinking behind 59 Seconds, to be honest actually. We’re saying to people, “Look. I will do all that hard work for you,” and I think I probably read close a couple of thousand papers, academic papers for that book, “I will do all that hard work and then I will present it in a way that I think is fair and with some take-home messages.” But I think it’s very, very difficult, particularly now with the web when there are just so many websites out there telling you so many different things, and unless you have access to those primary sources, you’re not really going to know who or what to believe.
[0:36:51.6] MB: And so what can sort of a well-intentioned individual who is not a scientist do if they're looking for these kind of bastions of evidence-based strategies in today's world?
[0:37:04.9] RW: Obviously, read my books is the main thing. That's why I always advise anyone that. But I think always ask the question, “Where is the evidence? Where is this coming from?” Also, how much are you investing in it, because if it is something which is going to take you a couple of hours every day or something like that, you’re going to want to know that there is some kind of evidential underpinning that is in a peer-review journal or whatever it is. I just think asking for evidences is absolutely key, and not believing something just because it sounds plausible or it's easy. If it’s the sort of thing which you enjoy doing, well, it may not be having a wonderful effect on your life. Also, if you're not becoming more successful with it, if it’s not making you happier or improving relationships [inaudible 0:37:51.5], just stop and do something else. It's not rocket science, and I appreciate that it can be quite tricky for people particularly on the evidential front.
[0:38:00.6] MB: Yeah, I think that’s a struggle that we think about a lot, is how can — Obviously, on the show, we take a lot of time. We read through a lot of the research. We try to find people who have done their homework and actually speak from a position of sort of scientific authority, but it’s definitely a struggle, and I think a lot about there's so much just noise out there. How can we see through the mist and figure out, “All right. What’s actually true? What's actually effective?” It’s something that's kind of a mission of ours and that we spent a lot of time thinking about.
[0:38:34.7] RW: It’s important work, and it’s even more important when you move out to the health domain where people are doing all sorts of weird procedures that aren’t helping at all. Some of the sort of cutting edge health research showing some of things we thought were extremely helpful [inaudible 0:38:48.8] in terms of some sorts of surgery and pills and so on has simply having no effect. If it's a problem there, it’s definitely going to be a problem when you move over to psychology.
[0:38:59.5] MB: I'm curious, there's one other strategy that you talked about and 59 Seconds that I thought was really interesting, which is the idea of writing your own eulogy. Can you talk a little bit about that?
[0:39:11.5] RW: Yeah, it’s a lovely idea. I mean, it's — Well, not when you come to do it. It’s quite a terrifying idea [inaudible 0:39:16.9] it’s lovely, which is this notion that we don't realize perhaps [inaudible 0:39:21.6] life is and it’s very easy to get distracted and to just simply have a good time and not think about the bigger picture. It’s only when you get slightly drawn in life, these thoughts to realize there are things you wish you had done and that something’s a little bit more meaningful than others and so on. Writing your own eulogy is a nice way of cutting to the chase. So you say to somebody, “What do you want someone to stand up at your own funeral and say about you?” It's a very effective way of setting goals.
If you ask people to do that, then look at the discrepancy between what they've written for that perfect eulogy and their life as it currently is, you can see people suddenly start to shift and go, “Well, I'd like someone to stand up in my funeral and say what a kind person I've been and I’ve helped to my friends and family, and then you say, “So, currently, are you helping your friends or family?” They say, “No, I'm not,” and so is fairly obvious where the shift is.
It’s a lovely exercise. There's a lot of psychology to the back that up and into a field called terror management, and it's very interesting. Yeah, it's something I recommend actually to all my students.
[0:40:31.7] MB: What is terror management?
[0:40:33.3] RW: Terror management theory is this notion that there are certain things that scare us and how we respond to that. Of course, the biggest thing that scares us is death, and so most people run away from death. Actually, you want people to confront the fact [inaudible 0:40:52.7] on the few things we know with 100% certainty. Actually, it isn't quite scary. It can be quite empowering, and that is a very old idea. I mean, the idea of memento mori, which was you see skeletons in paintings or something like that, those of there to remind the viewer that life is short and that you should live the best life possible right now, because your life might end much sooner than you think. So it's a very old psychological intervention [inaudible 0:41:22.4].
[0:41:23.1] MB: I want to segue now and get into a little bit, just talk about the as if principle. I find that really, really fascinating and that’s something that I think is worthwhile to share with the listeners. Would you talk a little bit about kind of what that is and how you came to talk about that?
[0:41:40.8] RW: Yeah, the as if principle, again, dates back to the roots of psychology, and particularly to William James who’s one of the founding fathers of psychology around the turn of the last century, and the obvious way of looking at the link between — Let's go with behavior and emotion, is that your emotions create certain behaviors, and that feels like common sense. When you feel happy, you smile.
What James did was to question that and turn it on its head and say, “Well, is the opposite true? Is there a kind of back channel?” which is that if you face, forced your face into a smile, do you end up feeling happier? He was an experimentalist. He was a philosopher, and so pose that question in various domains before the experimentalists come along and start to go, “Let’s ask that question. When you behave in certain ways, does that affect the way you think and the way you feel?” and they found that it did. You behave as if you are happy, you feel happier. You behave as if you're confident, you feel more confident. That is the basis of the book which in America is called the as if principle. I just explored that very simple idea in lots of different domains.
[0:43:00.0] MB: Is that essentially the idea of fake it till you make it?
[0:43:04.6] RW: A little bit. I think it's not same as that, and in part because the word kind of fake it has a slightly different meaning to it, but it is that notion that if you, yes, behave in a certain way, that will affect how you think and feel.
Fake it until you make it is often about how it [inaudible 0:43:23.8] to perceive you and it’s not quite that. It's more about how your behavior affects yourself, and then that affects others. The fake it till you make it is, “Oh! I’m going to appear very confident and other people will see me as more confident.” The as if principle is, “I'm going to act more confident. That makes me feel more confident, and therefore I am perceived as more confident.”
[0:43:45.6] MB: Tell me a little about the science behind that. What does kind of research say or should you share some of the specific conclusions or examples from some of the studies?
[0:43:55.4] RW: Well, in terms of the [inaudible 0:43:58.2] pathways, we don’t really know, to be honest. There is a very profound theory that sits behind it, and this is why it interested William James. The theory is that your entire common sense notion that you feel happy and, therefore, smile, is simply wrong, that you have no idea how you feel until you observe yourself. It gets to the roots of consciousness.
So the idea is that sort of there’s someone sitting in your head that’s watching your behavior and then deciding how you feel. So according to that theory, it’s absolutely crucial that you behave in sort of certain ways, because it really does influence how you literally see yourself. There is a profound debate within the consciousness movement about why it might work.
What we do know is across very many different domains, you see the same effect again and again and again, and so in fact actually one of the most controversial illustrations of it, but still one which I think [inaudible 00:45:08.3] merit is the power posing, which is Amy Cuddy’s work, where you stand in some ways and you feel more powerful and so on. Now, there’s a lot of debate about that particular brand work, but still the fundamental principle there, which is your actions dictate how you and think, I think is sound.
[0:45:28.3] MB: Tell me a little bit about specifically, how does the as if principle apply in the context of things like phobias, anxiety, or depression?
[0:45:37.2] RW: Well, if we take the last of those, depression, it's a very effective way of getting people out of depression, which is that you get to behave as if they're not depressed. If you get [inaudible 0:45:46.7] depressed people to be far more active, to do things like gardening, to be more involved in exercise and so on, it alleviates the depression reasonably rapidly. The same with phobias, where if you're scared of whatever it is, a spider, if you slowly bring a spider toward someone, you get them to behave as if they are not afraid, i.e., they relax and calm down, it gets rid of the phobia very quickly.
It's a very simple idea, but it sits throughout the entire history of psychology and all these different domains which actually hadn't ever been pulled together before. So that book is talking or reviewing areas which actually within the academic psychology would normally be seen as quite separate and populated by academics that don't normally talk to one another across those areas.
[0:46:34.8] MB: You have kind of a specific, kind of concrete example of how somebody could apply the as if principle to happiness, for example. Just thinking about if I want to be happier, what sort of things would I do if I were happier that make sense?
[0:46:51.0] RW: Yeah. Well, happiness is the easiest one, because you think, “Well, how do I behave when I’m happy?” Maybe you sing and maybe you dance and maybe you smile and maybe you talk to other people and maybe you go out for the evening to a party. Well, do all those things. Do all those things and you will feel happier.
The problem is motivating yourself to do that, but once you do these things, you’ll feel happier. So all you say, “How do I behave when I think and feel like that? Okay, I'll force myself to do that,” and the effect is very, very fast. So you feel those effects within about 30, 40 seconds. They’re some of the fastest moving effects in psychology. It's simple stuff, but for some reason it’s not something that often comes up on people's kind of common sense radar until the start to think about it.
[0:47:38.4] MB: Dow do we regenerate the willpower, the motivation to actually take those actions, especially, I feel like it’s hardest to do that when you're in a negative state.
[0:47:49.0] RW: It is hard, but it’s not that hard. I think singing if you’re on your own, singing a song, dancing around, whatever, they’re not that difficult things to do. It’s not like some huge happiness intervention where you need to think about your explanatory style or whether you’ve just supplied it, but It is just having a good time. I think that's very important.
It's also in terms of explaining in a way your internal states, and so if you're either nervous before a talk and you can feel these butterflies in your stomach, you can re-label those. You can say, “Well, I’m not nervous. I'm acting as if I'm excited, and that re-labeling then changes how you see yourself and you go, “Well, I’m excited to give this talk. Let me get up there and start.” Not, “I'm nervous. I don’t really want to go up there and start.” It can also apply to how do you label and perceive internal states.
[0:48:42.1] MB: Labeling could also be kind of a powerful component of acting as if you were happy or confident or excited, etc.
[0:48:50.7] RW: That's right. If you see your own behavior in a different way and in a more positive way, then that, again, changes how you think of and feel. It’s a curious one, because the principle, the theory, links together all these different ideas in psychology and it's, for me, why the book was interesting to do, because it goes right across motivation and persuasion. So if you're trying to get someone to do something and you stop paying them more and more money, their motivation drops. The reason being, well, what sort of tasks you need to pay me to do a task that I really don't like. So when you stop making [inaudible 0:49:29.8] behave as if I don't like this task by giving me more and more money to do it, you see my motivation drop. It starts to explain these kind of counterintuitive findings that you see in psychology.
[0:49:41.4] MB: What would be one piece of homework you would give our listeners to concretely implement some of the ideas and strategies that we’ve talked about today?
[0:49:50.3] RW: Oh my goodness! I think I see picking up on what you’re saying, the eulogy I think is good. I would say probably the best thing that comes out of 59 in terms of excess is the pre-mortem, the idea that before any — You convince yourself, that project has been an utter disaster, and you try and figure out why it failed so badly. It's one of the most effective ways of finding our problems with a scheme before that scheme starts, because otherwise you get this huge rose-tinted view, you're convinced it's going to be great and you don't take the necessary precautionary steps. I think the pre-mortem is very helpful.
[0:50:26.8] MB: And where listeners go if they want to find you, your books and all these resources online?
[0:50:32.4] RW: Richardwiseman.com is my websites and the links off there will take you to my YouTube channel, which is In 59 Seconds, which has all these tips and hints there in minutes. Then, obviously, there’s the books. We’ve spoken about Luck Factor and 59 Seconds, as if principle [inaudible 0:50:52.1] sleeping and dreaming and a book called Night School. This is all out there and it’s lovely when people read that material and feedback, and so if people have supported that work over the years, my thanks and gratitude to them.
[0:51:04.1] MB: Richard, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these wisdom, so many different strategies and concrete evidence-based things for people to implement their lives. It's been an honor to have you on here.
[0:51:14.2] RW: Thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity.
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